What does the Padres expansion monster Manny Machado explain? A team owner’s commitment to winning with fans

When news broke this weekend that the San Diego Padres and Manny Machado had reached an 11-year, $350 million extension agreement to avoid opt-out drama, replacing his existing contract and the third Keeping the superstar’s baseman in San Diego for the rest of his career, the reaction felt a little like the villain’s catchphrase in every Scooby-Doo episode.

How are the Padres doing this?

It’s been a baseball industry chorus for some time, and each iteration makes the rest of the industry look like the confused slides predictably whining about these meddling kids. Even before the Machado extension, other team owners grumbled about the open ambition (and open wallets) displayed by Padres owner Peter Seidler, New York Mets owner Steve Cohen and Philadelphia Phillies owner John Middleton. Always in tune with the concerns of his ultra-wealthy employers, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred earlier this month praised the Padres in the way only he can, saying they’d “done a really, really good job capitalizing on their talent, to increase their revenues,” but he also wondered aloud about their sustainability.

“The question is, ‘How much longer can you do this? What happens if you have to go through a rebuild?'” Manfred told USA Today, noting that the Padres are expected to lose money in 2023.

Seidler’s answer, in so many words? Challenge accepted.

The movements of Padres team owner Peter Seidler (left) and top baseball manager AJ Preller have fueled excitement about baseball in San Diego. (Photo by Matt Thomas/San Diego Padres/Getty Images)

The movements of Padres team owner Peter Seidler (left) and top baseball manager AJ Preller have fueled excitement about baseball in San Diego. (Photo by Matt Thomas/San Diego Padres/Getty Images)

Padres’ investment in Manny Machado was a winner

At the heart of sports fandom is a pact: you, the fan, invest your time and emotions – and yes, your money. You pay the ever increasing ticket prices. You pay for the cable to see your local team when everyone else you know has cut the cable. You pay for the $15 beer. You pay $134.99 for the replica jersey.

In return, the people behind the team — the front office, sure, but mostly the team owners — try to give you something worth rooting for, something worth spending discretionary income to get enjoy. That’s how it’s supposed to work.

In theory, it’s a circular system: there are fans who are hungry for a baseball franchise. A team owner provides the upfront payments to charter, relocate, or rebrand a baseball team for that fan base. The fan base rallies around said team. The team owner then improves the health of their investment, making money and reinvesting it to attract star players, win them and in turn encourage even more fans to get even more interested in the team.

Some would call it “capitalizing on their talent to increase their sales.” Others would define this dynamic with a simpler expression: you get what you pay for.

Many team owners and front offices have spent a lot of time trying to break the mental link between star spending and fan excitement. Sustainability became the buzzword of the day. Long-term mega deals became scarlet letters.

Seidler, who took control of the Padres in 2020, doesn’t have sustainability in his personal motto.

“People love that word,” he told reporters in February. “Let’s find someone else. Do I think our parade will be on land or water or both?”

Nearing the peak of this sustainability movement, Machado and Bryce Harper waited for a frigid winter in the free agent market, eventually signing deals with the Padres and Phillies, respectively, in late February. It’s far from universal or linear, but it’s clear that these two teams — the fighters in the NLCS 2022, led by aggressive executives AJ Preller and Dave Dombrowski — helped swing the spending pendulum back the other way.

Other factors: The comically awful outcome of the Mookie Betts trade for the Boston Red Sox, the addition of a financial superpower in Cohen’s Mets, and the burgeoning effectiveness of early career extensions as exemplified by Jose Altuve, Jose Ramirez, Julio Rodriguez, Wander Franco and about every productive member of the Atlanta Braves.

Turns out, long, lucrative contracts aren’t inherently bad. Far from it. Lessons learned from the less-than-successful deals of Miguel Cabrera and Albert Pujols have narrowed down to more specific criticisms: Don’t sign players in certain age groups or in certain profiles with defensive limitations. Other failed deals have been brought down for other reasons, with variations on the theme of teams taking half measures to make a big investment in a sport where one player can’t elevate an entire team onto the field.

As it turns out, none of this ever applied to Machado. At San Diego, he has played 519 of a possible 546 regular-season games. He has two top-three finishes on the NL MVP poll and excelled as a voting leader on two playoff teams — the total for San Diego’s 20 seasons prior to his arrival.

If Machado had indeed reached the end of the 2023 season without a new deal and exercised his contractual opt-out, the Mets, Yankees and a host of other teams would almost certainly have been chasing his services with a fervor absent from the drab landscape of 2019. While the Padres landed Machado for less-than-expected four years ago, this week they had to go the extra mile and commit more to a 30-year-old than they originally did to a 26-year-old. Why? Because, as Machado so eloquently put it earlier this spring, “markets change.”

What the Padres win by doubling down

The Padres don’t get caught by halves. Before Seidler took control of the franchise, they made their own big contracting mistake when they signed Eric Hosmer, who just wasn’t a great candidate to begin with. But the Padres weren’t intimidated into austerity a la the Cincinnati Reds ownership group. Instead, they learned from it and focused their attention on the younger, more enduring, and more outstanding types of players who have proven themselves as franchise anchors.

It will be more expensive, but it could also prove more rewarding in the long run. Since Machado took over at the hot corner, Preller and the team have added Juan Soto, Xander Bogaerts, Josh Hader, Yu Darvish, Joe Musgrove and Blake Snell. Some will play alongside Machado for at least five years. The team also brought up Fernando Tatis Jr. and – despite some, er, sagas – secured his stunning talent for almost forever.

Padres fans have responded as expected. Despite the ubiquitous “small media market” label attached to the team, the Padres attract a comparatively high percentage of potential viewers and have featured in the top five teams in MLB in local ratings for the past few seasons. After finishing 18th in MLB by attendance average in 2018, they’ve finished third and fifth for the past two seasons, attracting more than 10,000 additional fans per game in 2022 as the final iteration of the pre-Machado Padres.

“We seed great fans for life,” Seidler told reporters in October. “And now, from our standpoint, we’ve always had an obligation, and it’s now on a higher level. That’s good.”

A man whose social media accounts are covered with handles that feel more like a “message board poster” than a “billionaire team owner” — how many complaints can you really have about PadrePedro7? — Seidler has a vested interest in seeing a good baseball team, as do the emotionally involved team owners in Philadelphia and New York. His grandfather was Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley, and Seidler has been open about making the Padres a lasting, worthy rival to the Chavez Ravine juggernauts.

“I kind of like spending money,” he said in October. “You can’t take it with you.”

Step back from the immediacy of financial commitments and the muted MLB landscape of late, and Seidler’s refreshing fan-like tendencies also appear to be sensible strategic moves over the medium to long term. Many teams lose money in any given year, but the results and storylines they create with that net loss can pay off big. The Dodgers, for example, have posted some annual losses since being acquired by the current ownership group in 2012, but the franchise they bought for $2 billion was worth $4.075 billion at last check, according to Forbes.

Seidler has said he’s not interested in selling the team anytime soon or wants the Padres to stay in his family for generations to come. But the logic applies. When a team builds a fan base and sustains it over a long period of time, by whatever means and for whatever reason, we magically stop talking about media markets – when was the last time you heard someone the greatness of St Louis mentioned when discussing The Everlasting Success of the Cardinals?

And so Manfred subtly defended any team owners unwilling to truly uphold their end of the bargain with the fans, spurring Seidler and the Padres to once again defy the perceived limitations of their market. “The Padres will lose money,” he said earlier this month, “but the question is what are you going to do next?”

First, it appears they’re going to lengthen Manny Machado. Thereafter? Maybe they’ll try the same thing with Juan Soto. At some point we have to stop being so surprised.

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